Learning What We’re Up Against, and How to Carry On
If we’re learning anything from the messy struggles for health care reform and the passage of the stimulus bill back in February (how long ago that feels!)—and it’s far from clear whether anyone is learning anything—it could be that anyone seeking to improve the conditions of life for one’s fellow citizens is in for a real (endless) struggle. Okay, we already knew that, but now we find that if we start getting organized and gaining any traction, we’re in for a fight against not only powerful entrenched well-funded interests, but also their artificial grass-roots (“astroturf”) campaigns that stir up already nervous, agitated citizens to vent outrage against socialism in the White House and government takeovers of Medicare, among other threats to the republic.
This site has long advocated increased, liberal spending on hurricane- and flood-protection infrastructure and reinvigoration of social services in storm-damaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast—including the restoration of the invaluable Charity Hospital. This is what we’re here for. But sometimes your own supposed representatives act against you: In February Louisiana’s ambitious governor Bobby Jindal made a spectacle of himself through his well-publicized vow to reject some $98 million of the stimulus money that would have benefited about 25,000 unemployed. Embattled and also ambitious governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, with an even higher unemployment rate, vowed the same. With caring leadership like this, who needs more hurricanes?
What we’re finding, as though we hadn’t learned the lesson well enough already, is the intensity with which fiscal and social conservatives will stand in the way of provision of funding for improvements. We now have “tenthers ”—a movement of true believers in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States who resolutely hold that anything not provided for in the first nine articles—such as the interstate highway system —is unconstitutional and shouldn’t be funded by their hard-earned tax dollars. Not surprisingly, there is a populous overlap between tenthers and would-be secessionists . This is some of what we’re fighting against. If they don’t want to pay for the interstate highway system that they (can) use every day, how eager will they be for their tax dollars to be spent to help their fellow citizens who need a little flood protection now and then?
The conservative opposition to what used to be called “internal improvements ” (in the early 1800s there were protracted struggles over plans for canals, a National Road, and other public works projects) sometimes derive from sincere principles about judicious use of public funds. For many, anything other than national defense is suspect. But it has to be borne in mind that a very powerful impetus for conservative opposition to public spending is the determination to block any program that will warm public affection for Democrats. This, you may recall, was one of the goals behind the push to privatize Social Security (circa 2005).
And so, when we seek to expand access to medical coverage, when we want to increase federal spending on storm-defense infrastructure and restoration of vital wetlands and other environmental protection, we face opposition from conservatives in the Deep South (never mind that hurricanes hit hard there) and elsewhere who want to block the success of any program that would redound to the benefit of what they insist on calling the Democrat party.
George Lakoff Says “the Moral Appeal Is Always the Best”
We met the great U.C. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff , author of Whose Freedom? , at a panel discussion on political propaganda at the New York Public Library  in 2007. We asked his advice on how Levees Not War and other advocates for more generous funding for public works and social services should try to appeal to the public and elected officials. He said the moral appeal is always the best. It’s honest and it is more persuasive. Do unto others the Golden Rule, etc. Democrats and progressives, he said, always fall for the “Enlightenment fallacy,” the naïve belief that if you simply present the facts, people will see the light and support your cause. Not so simple. (Republicans, who historically represent the powerful more than the common folk, tend to appeal to fear [national security concerns], self-interest, class or racial resentment, and falsehoods and distortion about the opposition.) Democrats should never try to imitate Republican appeals—it’s never believable. Instead, use the moral argument (the golden rule)—It’s the right thing to do. Expanding health care coverage, protecting our cities from hurricanes with reinforced flood protection is the right thing to do, morally and ecologically. Be good stewards of the earth, etc. Improving schools and hospitals and paying the teachers and nurses well is the right and fair thing to do. It makes our country stronger and treats our neighbors with the respect they deserve, and so on.
Lakoff said Democrats and progressives are never persuasive with the appeal to self-interest—they can’t compete on that turf with Republicans. Part of the weakness of the self-interest approach is that it is fragmented, does not show how the various parts are connected, and therefore lacks a cohesiveness and persuasive force because it. To be persuasive, what we must do is show how seemingly disparate phenomena are related. Show, for instance, how the nation’s dependence on oil and the ravaging of the wetlands are connected; how the 10,000+ miles of oil and gas canals through the Louisiana wetlands destroy the storm-surge buffer that protects us from hurricanes, while the carbon emissions aggravate global warming, which intensifies hurricanes and raises sea levels, and so on. (This is why we occasionally write about the coolness of public transportation —such as a train from New Orleans to Baton Rouge , for which stimulus money could be available!—which we hope Governor Jindal will begin to understand.)
Sometimes we worry that we are working on too many fronts to be effective; at other times we feel we’re developing a sort of unified field theory of public works, social services, environmental protection, and peace-mongering. As ever, the three legs of our tripod are infrastructure, anti-war, and environmental issues as they relate to rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. This whole venture—this thing we call Levees Not War—grew out of a “Social Contract ” project, an argument for a repair of the social safety net and a more equitable distribution of wealth. We believe in a system, a government and a society, that is activist in nature and serves poor, middlin’, and rich, and makes demands on all, a two-way street of reciprocal obligation and fulfillment. These ideas, these values, are at the core of our mission. Though we may sometimes appear to be wandering off the reservation, this is what we always come back to, and where we hope everyone feels welcome.